The sermon text, Isaiah 66, declares to us God's program of evangelism for the world. Whatever contradicts against this Word of God must be addressed, identified, and rejected.
Now most everyone is concerned about bringing the Gospel of Christ to more people. The problem is, most evangelism programs put the emphasis on what we do. They make evangelism our work, rather than the work of God.
If we focus on our own actions, then we are instantly confronted with the danger of pride, and the danger of comparing our efforts with those of others. Many people will think, "Look how much we have done! Look how spiritual we are!" The temptation is then to judge the success of a church by the numbers in the pews, instead of faithfulness to the Gospel.
Instead, we should speak the Gospel whenever and wherever the Spirit leads us, and leave the numbers in God's hands.
Often, evangelism programs measure how emotionally charged-up we are. Often, the quality of our witness is said to depend upon how impassioned we are, as if it is our passion that makes the Word powerful.
But the Word is powerful in itself. It is living and active, the Sword of the Spirit that pierces souls. The Word does not need our passion. Far from it. The Word works very well without, or even in spite of, our passion. Our emotions do not convert people, and using such methods may actually create a stumbling block for many when they do not feel what they think they should.
Christ taught us that out of the heart come evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, and blasphemies. May we never enthrone our hearts as the center of our religion.
What is perhaps most disturbing about evangelism programs is when doctrinal purity is set in opposition to missions. We need to get busy saving the lost, they say, not worrying about how pure our message is.
But doctrine is not opposed to missions. Rather, doctrine is the mission. Jesus instructed the apostles to teach the nations to observe everything that He has commanded. We must teach pure doctrine, and never shy away from it, or else we weaken the proclamation of the Gospel. After all, the Gospel is doctrine, and to subtract truth away from it makes it into no Gospel at all. If we give some watered-down gospel with only a very simple, childlike message, then we are shying away from the witness we should give.
Therefore, if we begin with the assumption that evangelism is our work, then we end up in all kinds of strange places. We end up frantically sharing a weak message with as many people as we can, as if God is not in control. We end up frantically worrying and rushing about to try to save people. We end up fearfully thinking that we are responsible for millions who go to hell. We end up either burning with pride at our own numerical successes, or else burnt-out in despair because our efforts seem to end in failure.
But if we say that God is the One who does evangelism, then we begin to see the glory of His mission on earth. The Old Testament text reveals the grand story of God's work. In the Word that God speaks through Isaiah, he repeats over and over the words, "I" and "My" and His own Name, "the Lord". He is the One driving the verbs. He is the One who is at work to save souls, from start to finish.
He says, "I, because of their actions and imaginations, am about to come." The sinful thoughts and deeds of mankind stank up to high heaven. So the Lord took action. He came down, that is, He took flesh in the womb of the Blessed Virgin Mary. He came and lived among us.
And He did not only come, but He also gathered. Jesus said, "I, if I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to Myself." Jesus said this to indicate that by His death, when He was lifted up on the Tree of Calvary, He was drawing all of mankind to Himself. They are gathered to see His glory, for nowhere else is His glory more revealed than at the Cross, where He sheds the healing river of His lifeblood for all mankind; where He, as the representative of all mankind, receives the just punishment for our sins. He died the death of all men, and we died with Him in Baptism, and we proclaim His death in the Supper.
So He has set His sign among us: His Body, hung upon the Cross. Wherever the Gospel is spoken, there is Christ upon the Cross, for the Gospel is the Holy Absolution by which the Blood of the Lamb atones for our sins. Where Baptism and the Lord's Supper and Preaching the Word are, there is the sign of Christ upon the Cross, He who died and rose for our justification. He has declared us righteous.
All of this is the work of our Lord - His mission, His Gospel, His death and resurrection.
Of course, no one can hear the Gospel unless there is someone to preach it. Therefore, the Lord has sent and continues to send many who proclaim His glory; whether by publicly preaching or by privately speaking. Yet the act of proclamation is not ours, as if we could boast of it. It is the Lord's glory that is proclaimed, and it is His Word, not ours. He speaks the Gospel through our lips, just as it is not Isaiah's word that we hear, but the Word of the Lord.
Now many are being brought to the Lord's holy Mountain in Jerusalem. But this is not the earthly city. It is the spiritual Jerusalem, which is the Church.
We are an offering to the Lord, giving ourselves as living sacrifices. Yet even this is not our work, since these sacrifices are carried in ceremonially clean vessels, that is, purified by the Blood of Christ. He gathers, He selects us for service, He cleanses our sacrifice so that instead of vile, filthy sin, we offer the loving works of holy children of God. Even in our greatest works, the Lord receives the glory.
This gathering of the Lord extends into the next world, the new heavens and the new earth that He will reveal. This present Church age will merge into the Age of Glory that lasts forever, for the Lord creates saints that live forever. He is creating an eternal city, made not with human hands and earthly bricks, but the City of God made up of all the saints and apostles and prophets and patriarchs from all of history. That is what you are a part of, for Christ has drawn you also into His Church.
This is how God's mission works. He calls, He gathers, He enlightens, He sanctifies. He has built His Church upon the Chief Cornerstone, Jesus Christ, and upon the foundation of prophets and apostles, who taught the pure doctrine that binds us to Christ and builds us upon Him. It is a mighty Church, not because we are mighty. If we build, it will collapse. Human works and human hearts are sand, which is no foundation at all. But Christ builds upon Himself.
Therefore, may we forget about numbers and pride. May we stop looking into our hearts for some fire that will light the Church. The Church is already blazing bright with the glory of Christ Jesus, our Lord, whatever our numbers. May the Lord use our tongues to proclaim that glory, so that all glory, honor, and blessing be given to God alone and to the Lamb. In His Name. Amen.
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